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Character Animation

The Increasing Role of Character Animation in Video Games

Animation Mentor graduates share their insights about working in gaming industry

By Heidi Landgraf of Animation Mentor.
For more information about Animation Mentor visit www.animationmentor.com.

Video Games have certainly evolved since the arrival of one of the earliest video games, Pong by Atari, more than 30 years ago. Back in the day, people were content to play this two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis. Gamers today, however, are demanding an increasingly more immersive gaming experience, one that the industry is constantly seeking to meet.

"Almost every video game today uses character animation. It’s become a standard element in modern entertainment software," says Mark Stuart, who is a video games designer for Bionic Games and is currently working on Spyborgs.

We asked a group Animation Mentor graduates who were trained as character animators, and who now work in the gaming industry, to share their insights about how the role of the character animator has changed in the past few years.

Today, gamers find themselves in fully rendered CG worlds, competing in increasingly complex missions with more believable characters. This is where character animation specifically comes in to play: By creating greater empathy for the character, gamers become more involved in the game. "The uniqueness of gaming compared with other media is that we cannot just relate to the hero, but we actually become the hero," says Olivier Ladeuix, Animation Mentor graduate and former animator at Rare/Microsoft Game Studio.

As technology ‘budgets’ (technological parameters, not financial budgets) have increased and technology has become more sophisticated, game developers are using more complicated characters that allow the gamer to more fully connect with the gaming experience.

"Programmers are constantly looking for ways to optimize artwork so that they can fit more into the budget that’s allowed. On a yearly basis you are seeing new engines, new ways of exploring animations and exporting more artwork onto a disk more efficiently," says Animation Mentor graduate Bill Buckley, who is an animator at Neversoft where many of the latest Guitar Hero installments were developed. "The result is that you can now have more characters on the screen at once, increased detail in scenery, further travel beyond the world origin, and more sophistication in the character itself."

"There is a common phrase used in developer jargon and it’s ‘they wanna feel,’" Buckley says. "They want to feel what the character is thinking, what his emotions are and know what the motivations are behind the actions. The technology makes it possible for greater subtleties within the character’s design, and gives animators more room for conveying thought and emotion through the character."

"If the character doesn’t care about progressing through these levels, then why am I going to care?" Buckley asks. One of the best pieces of wisdom Buckley learned from his mentor at Animation Mentor is: "If you can get your audience to empathize with a character, they will follow you to the ends of the earth."

A Good Game Needs a Good Story

Technological advances also allow for increased intricacies of storyline. In this way, animators say that we start to see an overlap between the film and gaming industries.

"At Ubisoft, we have scriptwriters who concentrate on storytelling and character development. If a game looks great, sounds great and is marketed well, it still won’t sell if the content doesn’t keep the player involved, challenged, and wanting more," says Martine Quesnel, animator at Ubisoft, adding that after the content has been created, it’s the animators who are responsible for bringing it all to life. "As a result, animation is playing a bigger role than ever."

To further involve gamers in the plot, more cinematics are being used so that gamers can see exchanges between characters and the subtext of what a character is thinking. It’s in a cinematic where an animator must control how users see the scene and where the animation is created through the lens of a camera shot, which is similar to watching a small ‘movie’ unfold. Quesnel, who studied character animation at Animation Mentor, said that her animation training helped her prepare for creating cinematics as she learned the fundamental principles on how to display emotions, where to create anticipation, and how to use the camera to set the mood.

Animation for Films Vs. Games

Where animation for films and animation for games differ is in the process of creating them. "Probably the biggest difference [between working in feature film and working in games] is that in games, the player is in control of the experience," says Lee Petty, art director at Double Fine. "The player’s decisions affect the animations of the player’s character."

Game animations are created in loops, where the action sequence starts and ends with the same pose, then is looped to the next action sequence. The trick is in creating a seamless transition between one loop cycle and the next. One possible series of actions a player may take is to run, jump, pause and run again. Another potential sequence is a character that runs, walks, stops, and lies down. An animator must consider multiple combinations of actions that can be taken. "A good animator knows how to support that kind of open-endedness," says Petty.

In addition, games offer unique challenges to the animator. "Your animation can usually be seen from all angles in the game so it must look correct from all points of view," says Dave Vasquez, Animation Mentor graduate and animator at Electronic Arts. "Another big thing with games is that you are making an enormous number of animations which are sometimes shared with multiple characters."

This requires a different production pipeline than films, and creates much more interdependence among the team working on the game.

Gaming Is a Fast-Paced Industry

The fast pace in the gaming industry demands that animators plan and organize their time well. "I think that one problem that a lot of animators run into when animating in games is that they have so many different ideas and ways that they can go in to a scene that funneling those ideas into a shot can be a bit daunting," says Buckley. "One of the greatest things that I took from my Animation Mentor education was to map out exactly what my finished project was going to look like as opposed to jumping into it and hoping for a happy mistake!"

Studios seeking talented character animators -- whether in films or games -- are still looking for a strong foundation in animation fundamentals. A solid understanding of body mechanics is a must.

"Gaming characters often leap, climb, sprint and soar through their environments, so animators with a core understanding of movement are better prepared," says Quesnel. "Animation Mentor’s character animation program gave me the foundation in weight, balance, force, anticipation and overlapping that I have used constantly in the gaming industry."

Buckley agrees. "They (studios) want to see a person that has solid body mechanics and that understands physics and weight, but goes beyond just a solid walk cycle," he says. "They want to see some type of acting in there, and more than someone who just knows how to make a guy rock out [like in the Guitar Hero Metallica game], but who can breathe some kind of life into the character and help us see the feeling behind the action too."

A Big Demand for Character Animators

Character animators are in high demand in the gaming and the feature film industries because of their ability to bring characters to life. And animators say that creating empathy for the character is still the No. 1 objective in games and films.

Buckley says a great example of character identification within a game is in Team Fortress II, where he feels each character has a unique style and movements that are easily distinguishable from one another. He also says God of War does a good job of demonstrating character development, where the hero gets stronger with each passing of a level, which increases the player’s commitment level to the game.

"Another great example of how character animation helps a game achieve more realism is in the Resident Evil series. In those games the character’s walk animations change based on their health. This adds flavor and tension to the game," says Stuart. He feels that choosing a human element such as health further helps the audience to identify with the characters.

Creating the animation for these characters can be challenging, but is also rewarding and fun. When Ladieux worked on Nuts and Bolts, one of his favorite characters to animate was Pikelet, who was a sleep deprived, pizza-eating town police chief with very rude manners. "Conveying his personality was a lot of fun," Ladieuz says.

Quesnel was very happy to work on Temari from Naruto: The Broken Bond, because of the interesting combat moves. "My body mechanics were put to the test, " says Quesnel. "She is a powerful ninja with a giant fan as a weapon and she could fly on the fan and repel enemies with a swoop."

Buckley’s favorite thing about his job is when he works on one of those moments in the game when the audience says, "Awww! That’s cool!" He also enjoys working on the part of the game where the player wins and the character gets his due. "If you can really give an audience a moment in which the outside world ceases to be important and the only thing that matters is the world you’ve developed for them – that to me is the truest form of magic," says Buckley. "Everything that you are showing them doesn’t exist. It’s nothing more than pixels and electrons moving across the screen, and yet [they] still want the character to win. That to me is the beauty of storytelling."

As games become more sophisticated and technology advances, plot-driven games with more real and believable characters is where the gaming industry is headed.

More intricacy in character development along with the demand for bigger challenges to overcome is inextricably linked because the major trend in the gaming industry is ‘total immersion.’ The hard-core gamers want to lose themselves in the game and also want to be able to brag to their friends when they win.

Another trend that’s coming to play in the gaming industry is tying a game to a movie release.

Martine Quesnel, an animator at Ubisoft, is currently working on a game that is based on James Cameron’s movie Avatar. "Making characters believable is becoming increasingly important as the overlap to the film industry becomes more prominent," Quesnel says.

The community aspect of gaming is also on the rise. Xbox and PS3 already have online chat tools, and Bill Buckley, an animator at Neversoft, believes that technological advances in the future will narrow the gap between the solo moment and the community-based experience. With the huge success of the Nintendo Wii, along with party games such as Guitar Hero, there is an increasing desire for a team-like atmosphere to game playing as well.

Casual games, such as Wii Tennis, are creating an increased need for specificity within the control unit. "There’s been a trend in game engine development toward more advanced blending techniques, [which] translates to more responsive controls and less jerky animation," says Lee Petty, art director at Double Fine. These casual games appeal to the masses and are appreciated for their physical aspect as well. Buckley postulated that there could be a trend where casual games start to blend with plot-driven games, and the players would actually be acting out character traits physically. Now that would be fun with a group!

Whatever the future holds for the gaming industry, it is clear that character animators are in demand more than ever. Quesnel adds, "Though our tools and technology are constantly changing, the core of what we do as animators remains the same."

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